Justin Schultz said decision to return will be his to make |

Justin Schultz said decision to return will be his to make

Joe Rutter

Justin Schultz isn’t making any promises about when he will return to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup, but the veteran defenseman said Thursday the decision is his to make.

“It’s up to me (and) when I feel I’m ready to play, I’ll be in,” Schultz said after taking part in an optional practice at UMPC Lemieux Sports Complex. “It’s good to get these skates in and get as much work as I can.”

Schultz hasn’t played since Oct. 13 when he fractured his left leg in a game at Montreal. The expecation was that Schultz would be out four months, and he reached that mark on Wednesday.

Schultz has left open the possibility of playing this weekend when the Penguins play the Calgary Flames and New York Rangers on back-to-back days at PPG Paints Arena.

“It’s having confidence in my leg and feeling like I can go out and make a difference,” Schultz said. “I’m not going to be hesitant out there. The league is too fast nowadays. If you are slow reacting, you are going to get exposed. I’m just making sure I’m ready.”

The good thing for Schultz and the Penguins is that 25 games remain in the season, so there’s no reason to rush him back into the lieup.

“It’s not the playoffs yet, but I’ve missed I don’t know how many games now,” Schultz said. “I want to get in as quick as I can when I feel ready and try to get into things. It will be a tough first couple of games, so the quicker I get back, the better.”

Heavy workload for Murray

In back-to-back games, goalie Matt Murray has faced a combined 90 shots. That he has turned aside 88 of them has as much to do with the Penguins’ modest two-game winning streak as anything else.

Murray backstopped the Penguins to a 4-1 win on Monday at Philadelphia and a 3-1 victory against Edmonton on Wednesday. The wins in consecutive starts were the first for Murray since he reeled off a nine-game winning streak from Dec. 15 to Jan. 11.

Murray stopped 50 of 51 shots against the Flyers and 38 of 39 attempts by the Oilers. It’s the most shots he faced in a two-game stretch this season.

“When he plays that way, the confidence carries over to the group in front of him,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s got a calming effect with the way he plays the position. He’s very positionally sound, it’s an economy of motion. He reads the play extremely well.

“I’ve always felt his greatest assest is his hockey IQ, the ability to read the plays, to get to his spots. He makes difficult saves in certain instances look routing and they’re not, they are tough saves.

“That’s when Matt is at his very best, and he’s certainly been very good the past couple of games.”

Murray has lowed his goals-against-average to 2.82 and raised his save percentage to .916, just a tick below his career average.

Aston-Reese looking for more

With his first game in over a month out of the way, Zach Aston-Reese is looking to increase his hockey conditioning.

Skating on a fourth line Wednesday night, Aston-Reese played in his first game since Jan. 8 when he suffered a hand injury in a fight.

Aston-Reese played 10 minutes, 53 seconds against Edmonton. He had five hits and was a plus-one. He admitted it took a while to get going after sitting out 13 games.

“It’s always a little bit difficult to stay in game shape no matter what you do (while you’re out),” he said Thursday after practice. “You’re kind of using your whole body, not just your legs or your upper body. You’re recreating a scenario where you read and react. That’s the toughest thing to do. You just have to play games.”

Aston-Reese joined Matt Cullen and Garrett Wilson on a fourth line that, at times, found itself matched up against Edmonton’s top line that include Connor McDavid and Leon Drasistatl. The fourth-liners held the McDavid line in check during 4 minutes, 3 seconds of ice time.

“I thought as a line we played pretty well,” Aston-Reese said. “It felt good that coach trusted us to get the job done.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.